Monday, January 31, 2011

First Cars, First Novels

My first car was a blue station wagon that had seen better days while it still had its first transmission. It was a quirky car, and its biggest quirk was its windshield wiper system.

I'm sure at one time the wipers had several different speeds, but by the time I was driving only one speed was reliable: moderately fast. In normal rain it did well. That was the sweet spot. Any other kind of rain was more difficult. I don't remember driving in many downpours, but I don't think I'd have gotten far in one. I would have been driving blind.

Trickiest, though, was a light rain. One of the most annoying sounds in the world is the choppy sound of a wiper going back and forth across a dry windshield, and that was the sound my wipers made in a drizzle. The easiest solution was to turn the wipers on for a few seconds, then turn them off. On. Off. On. Off. Got old pretty fast.

But there was another solution. The wipers also had an elusive slow speed that I could only find if I fiddled with them enough. Turn them on too low and they would wipe once and then sit there in the ready position indefinitely. Turn them on too high and they would jump right to medium speed. But if I could get them just right I would have the perfect rhythm for light rain.

Only there was one problem with all this. My wiper system happened to be on the same stick as my turn signal. Without fail, every time I used my turn signal, the wipers would stop altogether.

See, my poor old car couldn't do two things at once. It didn't have the capacity for more than one operation at a time. Too many commands only confused it.

I think new writers can be that way with our first novels. We have some idea of what aspects go into a story, but we don't know how to do two different things at once. Write description while developing a character? Move the plot forward while allowing the characters some witty banter? Like my first car, sometimes we throw our hands up in surrender. One thing at a time!

I remember feeling that way with my first novel. I could do blocks of dialog or blocks of plot or blocks of back story, but not in combination. And description? Forget it!

But scenes need to be able to do several things at once, and incorporate them all so smoothly that the reader doesn't notice. I know I'm getting better at this, but I still often don't add certain aspects until a few revisions in. My hope is that one day the process will become so natural that I do it without even having to think. I'm not there yet, but I get closer with every book.

How about you? Any first car stories? First novel stories?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Recommendation: Enchanted Ivy

Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst combines two of my favorite things: fantasy and the collegiate atmosphere.

Lily Carter has always wanted to go to Princeton University. When she visits the campus with her grandfather for his class reunion, she isn't expecting to get the chance for an automatic acceptance to her dream school. But her grandfather has a surprise for her: the super secret Legacy Test. All she has to do is find the Ivy Key and she's guaranteed a spot at Princeton.

With the help of a black-and-orange-haired college boy named Tye, Lily begins her search. But with rabid library bookshelves attacking her and campus gargoyles giving her advice, Lily's thinking the Ivy Key might not be the stuffy “Good Old Boy” tradition she was led to believe. Turns out there are two Princeton Universities—the human one and the magical one—and Lily is caught in power struggle between them. Now she must dig up long-hidden secrets and betrayals if she's to protect both worlds.

I had read several recommendations for Enchanted Ivy before I ever picked it up myself, but though I had a general impression that it was a great book, I could never seem to remember what it was about. Despite that, it ended up on my library list, and I'm very glad it did.

Colleges, particularly the older ones like Princeton, have a magical quality all their own that Sarah Beth Durst taps into in this book. My own grandfather went to Princeton, and I remember visiting the campus with him while I was in high school. Of course, I never got to take a Legacy Test, but I remember a little of the atmosphere of the school, which Durst fully captures.

The fantasy magic fits the setting too. I loved the gargoyles and the creatures of the magical Princeton. The conflict in the story was well-developed and revealed at a perfect pace, with enough hints along the way to keep the reader guessing. Dust does an excellent job creating two worlds that both have flaws and features worth saving.

And the story has a lovely touch of romance as well. All in all I'd say this is an excellent rainy (or snowy!) day book.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dream Seeds

There was a time not too long ago when I thought that novels based on dreams were somehow less creative than novels built on long hours of pulling together a plot. Every time I heard that someone's novel was born out of a dream, I wanted to shout, “Hey, that's cheating!” Dreams are usually so chaotic that I couldn't see how anyone could drag a coherent story out of one.

And then I had mine.

It was beautiful: one of those few-and-far-between dreams that you wish would go on and on forever. I hated waking up to find that it wasn't real, knowing that even if I went back to sleep I couldn't recapture it. As soon as I could I wrote down everything I remembered. This was the dream:


I stood in the hidden-away market square of a small town, peering over the side of a stall made of gray wood. The smell of bread twisted my hunger pains into a tight cord, but I was too poor to buy food. My family had just lost everything, and my only hope was to rely on the baker's charity.

She turned me down.

No one knew me. I had come to this place from a future year that none of the people in the town would ever see. I had no reason to expect kindness from a stranger, so when a man I didn't know sat me down in front of a bowl of stew I was awed.

He introduced me to others in the town, made sure all my needs were met. I began a new life there. For a while I was content.

The change came when I discovered her [identity cut for spoiler reasons]. She was everything I could have wanted: like me in so many ways, but with her own flaws, not mine. I watched her from a distance, concerned for her safety.

Because she wasn't safe. The townspeople feared her. I felt their mistrust and sensed their intentions: they wanted her dead.

I remember standing in the shadow of an alley, waiting, watching and worrying. I had disguised myself, so when the man who had bought me food the first day came to stand beside me I was sure he wouldn't recognize me. And yet he did. He warned me to stay hidden. He told me that the people who wanted the girl dead would kill me too.

So I did what he said and kept myself from discovery. I watched my back. I stayed away from anyone who might guess who I was. But when the townspeople set their plan in motion, I couldn't stand aside and watch the girl die. I had to act.

As soon as they mobbed her, I... well, but that would be telling too much. Let me just say that what I did was one of the most exciting things I've ever done in a dream. The rest I'll keep secret for the book.


And that's where I got the idea for Olympus Gate. I had lots of questions to answer: How could I be from the future, and how did my family fit in? When and where was this town? What happened after the dream ended? Though the dream was initially everything, by the end it was only a small piece and many of the details were changed. But it was the necessary foundation. Without it I would never have imagined this book.

So that's a little more about Olympus Gate. Are any of you writing books based on a dream?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Not a Bad Monday

Three things that make this a pretty good Monday:

1. Nathan Bransford's First Paragraph Challenge. I've read through several of the entries. Some of them are quite impressive. Go on over and check it out if you haven't already.

2. Only one more day before The Iron Queen is released! So exciting. I can't wait to devour it.

3. You folks have got me thinking about some of my favorite songs. In particular I started thinking about (and then listening to) my number one song, which, unsurprisingly, I associate with writing. One Prairie Outpost by Carbon Leaf has a line that, for me, epitomizes writing: “One prairie outpost you are how I feel / Alone in a flat land 'tween the dream and the real.”

To me writing is about living in that lonely place between dreaming and reality, looking over the flat landscape and choosing to fill it, to create something worth sharing. Every time I hear the song I feel a chill... and then I get the urge to write.

What song best describes writing for you?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Recent Reads

I don't have an in-depth book recommendation for today, but instead I want to make a few quick mentions of the books I've been reading lately.

1. City of Glass by Cassandra Clare. I've been drawn into this series since the first page of the first book. The plot is beautifully intricate, the character relationships are compelling, and the writing never gets in the way. I was totally satisfied with the conclusion of this book, and I'm looking forward to reading some of her others.

2. Sunshine by Robin McKinley. Sunshine was originally published (in 2003) as an adult novel, and that was the printing I read. Recently it has been reprinted as YA, but I don't know if the more graphic scenes have been changed in that version or not, so be aware that it might not be appropriate for all teens. Personally I loved the book. The storytelling is fantastic. Every paged soaked me in the fantasy world McKinley created. This book will be going on my re-read shelf.

3. White Cat by Holly Black. Following last week's cat post, I thought this would be a fitting book to read. I have it on my Kindle, and I'm currently about halfway through. The plot idea is very unique; I haven't seen anything quite like it before. I love how Holly Black took events in history and twisted them just a little to fit her alternate universe. Great world-building.

4. Firelight by Sophie Jordan. I'm about halfway through this book too. I'm really getting into the story. I keep picking it up to read a chapter here and there—when cooking, while at the gym working out on the bikes, every spare moment I get. I'm looking forward to seeing how it ends!

Anyone else read anything fun lately?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More from the Contest

I left home early this morning to spend the day in Maryland, and I came home tonight to this.


I had been in contact with Lydia about posting my 500 words from the contest, and I knew she was planning on explaining in detail why she chose my entry, but I had no idea she would have such positive things to say about it.

Lydia, I know I've repeated these words many times already the past couple days, but THANK YOU!

I also appreciate all the kind words in the comments both on her blog and on mine. It's great to meet all of you! Thanks to those who've joined me here... I'll put together some more information on Olympus Gate to share over the next few weeks. In the meantime I'll be popping over to your blogs—look forward to learning more about all of you!

Tonight I'm incredibly grateful for the online writing community—I've never been more glad to be part of such a great group.


In yesterday's excitement I forgot to mention: I'm on Goodreads now!  Profile is here.  I finally realized I was hearing enough positive comments about it from enough varied sources that maybe I should join.  Friend me if you're on.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Sharp Angle Contest

Hey, everyone, check it out! I'm very surprised and excited. Thank you so much to Joe and Lydia Sharp. I'm looking forward to doing the author spotlight.

And to anyone visiting from their blog: hello and welcome! Glad you dropped by. I use this blog for writing updates, of course, but I also do book recommendations for my favorite YA reads and post things that I find interesting about the genre. Make yourself at home!

My work-in-progress, Olympus Gate, is about a girl from a post-apocalyptic earth who goes back in time to ancient Rome in the hope of saving the world. Anything else you'd like to know, just ask.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Favorite Fictional Felines

Over the past several years I have become increasingly convinced that the world is divided into “cat people” and “dog people.” (To be honest I think most of the hostility is directed from the dog people onto the cat people, but maybe I have that impression because I fall firmly in the cat people category. All I know is that when I mention having a cat, dog people immediately give me that “oh, you're one of those” looks.)

I love my cat. Some days I'm not sure why: she never voluntarily sits in my lap; she claws up the furniture, despite having a perfectly good scratching post (which she knows how to use); and on a regular basis she, ahem, “fails at litterbox” (her aim isn't the best). But I love her.

(As to why I'm not a dog person, the answer is very simple: OCD. I can't pet an animal without having to wash my hands immediately afterward, and dogs are very demanding. I don't mind them so much in other people's houses—for example, my friends have two Italian greyhounds I adore—but I couldn't deal with dogs on a daily basis.)

Well, recently I've realized that my love of cats extends beyond real cats to encompass fantasy cats. There are a lot of fun, fictional cats. And they all seem to have a few distinctive traits:

1. Overt disdain for humans.

This is soooo spot on. My cat is queen of her domain. I don't know if I've ever met a cat who didn't think it was the most important being in the universe.

2. Hidden wisdom (usually only shared in riddles).

Okay, maybe not so much on this one. I can see where the idea comes from: my cat often looks at me with this half-lidded stare that seems to suggest she knows the secrets of the universe... but usually that just means she woke up from a nap two minutes ago and isn't quite alert yet. I have also seen her rolled into a ball, her front legs battling her back legs, which are clawing at her face. Not so much wisdom there.

3. Hidden motives—impossible to know until the end whose side they are on.

And this may well be true. But will we ever really know? Cats have their own agendas; attempting to change them is futile.

And now for my three favorite fantasy cats (in no particular order):

Grim (The Iron Fey Series) – because every time someone asks him how he knows the things he knows, he replies, “I am a cat.”

Mogget (The Abhorsen Trilogy) – because sometimes immense, volatile power is contained in a tiny, sarcastic package.

Maruman (The Obernewtyn Series—which I really ought to reread and recommend here) – because underneath his madness is a hint of true affection.

How about you? Are there any particular cats (or dogs) you enjoy reading about?

Friday, January 7, 2011

My New Kindle!

In related news, Hunger was the first book I read on my new Kindle! I think e-books will take a little getting used to, but after reading just this one I'm confident that I picked the right e-reader for me. I love the e-ink and I'm so glad I don't have a gadget with lots of other distractions. All I want is the device and the books, and that's what I've got.

It is a little strange to be reading a book and not know by the feel of it in my hands how far along I am. I'll have to adjust to the progress bar along the bottom instead. And writing the recommendation for Hunger was a little more difficult since I couldn't just flip quickly through the pages to find a particular passage. Also, I think I take a little longer to get absorbed in an e-book since I'm currently very aware of how much smaller the screen size is than a regular book page.

But I imagine after a few more books I'll stop noticing the differences (kind of like I stop noticing a new pair of glasses after a few days). Overall I'm super pleased with my Kindle.

Book Recommendation: Hunger

The dedication page for Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler says, “If you have ever looked in the mirror and hated what you saw, this book is for you.” I agree. This book has the potential to change a person's life.

Lisabeth Lewis has just become Famine, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. She doesn't know why exactly. It's not like she doesn't have plenty to eat, right? She's FAT. She'll always be fat, no matter how much she diets or how often she exercises or who tries to tell her otherwise. The Thin voice knows: she's weak. Weak and fat.

But when Death gives her the Scales of office, her understanding of food drastically changes. She has the power to cause food riots and suck healthy people to skin and bone. Lisa's not so sure she wants her new role (despite the awesome black horse that comes with it)—her powers are downright terrifying. And to make matters worse, the horseman War is out for her blood.

Lisa has a lot to learn—and learn quickly if she wants to survive! But the most important lesson might not be so easy to grasp; Lisa must find balance... both as Famine and as a normal, everyday girl.

Hunger is a powerful book. It says very real things about anorexia and body image. Kessler writes from experience, giving her words raw power. Even though I've never struggled with a food disorder, I found myself reevaluating my relationship with food and exercise.

Hunger is also a hopeful book. Lisa learns how to find self-confidence and strength. In the end she is able to make healthy choices for herself. I think she has the potential to teach others in her situation how to do the same.

So I recommend this book to anyone who hates facing the mirror or who knows someone with an eating disorder. It's worth the read.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

An Experiment in Truth

Everywhere I look I see New Year's Resolutions. If you're like me, you may be getting tired of the trend. In fact, you may even now be rolling your eyes and thinking “not another New Year post.”

So I'm going to try very hard not to repeat the same sentiments everyone else is sharing. Instead I want to talk for a while about truth.

Recently someone very special in my life mentioned that if he could change one thing about himself he would stop lying so much. He said that he doesn't trust people. He lies because he doesn't want to face the consequences of the truth.

I'm not going to expound on the virtues of telling the truth or the “tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” But I do think that most of us want to be thought of as honest.

I know I want people to trust me. I want the person mentioned above to trust me. So that's my goal this year.

And with that in mind I want to introduce An Experiment in Truth. I'm going to work toward more honesty in my own life, particularly with regards to this person. I'm also going to attempt to write out one true thing a day to post on Facebook and Twitter. I won't promise it'll be deep out of respect of privacy concerns, but I will try not to be too shallow either.

If you are one of those people who struggles with telling the truth, or if you want to support someone who is relearning how to trust people, I encourage you to join me. I do understand that some people simply shouldn't be trusted, and some truths should only be shared with people you know well. But I think that the majority of us can benefit from learning to be more honest.

Who's with me?